Is a Selection Policy that Outlines “Acceptable” and “Unacceptable” Topics Promoting Censorship?

Q: My administrator wants to revise the policy for library selection and classroom reading choices in the middle school where I am a library media specialist. He is suggesting that we come up with very specific guidelines for what material is acceptable and what isn’t. I feel it is dangerous to make sweeping judgments of content outside of the context of a book. It also seems to me that being asked to create some sort of chart outlining what is and is not “acceptable” material for middle school readers crosses the line from selection into censorship. How would you classify this in regards to the definition of censorship? Do you have any advice regarding how to proceed?

You are absolutely right that if your administrator’s approach is to develop a policy with guidelines that specifically outline subjects or content that would be unacceptable, then the policy would be modeling censorship rather than selection.

You’ve already done a terrific job articulating why this isn’t a good idea. One thing you might also point out is that to develop such a policy would go against the standards of the school librarian profession. The American Library Association, including the American Association of School Librarians, notes the importance of including a statement about intellectual freedom in its Selection and Reconsideration Policy Toolkit. (And make sure to point out to your administrator if your policy already has a statement supporting these principles, as ALA recommends!)

Remind your administrator that following these principles is a way to help guarantee the First Amendment rights of everyone in the school, and a way to help everyone working in the school meet the needs and interests of the students.

You can also invite him to think about where and how the administration would draw the line. How will it determine what is and is not acceptable when what one parent or family or student or administrator finds appropriate another does not?

A policy that outlines what NOT to choose is putting the fears and concerns of the administration before the needs of students, and setting up the school library for failure in fulfilling its mission. It is “labeling” certain topics as unacceptable, and therefore limiting students’ access to information, as well as many fine works of fiction. In essence, such a policy puts the school in the position of abandoning its responsibility to serve the students, instead making its decisions based on the perceived responses of individuals who may or may not exist—imagined or would-be censors.

It’s so important to be able to approach selection proactively rather than reactively as you know. A selection policy should provide guidelines that will empower librarians and teachers, not limit or paralyze them. Criteria should focus on how to go about choosing books and other media, not reasons for rejecting them outright.

In the case of classroom materials and resources, it’s important that teachers be aware of the district policy for selecting curriculum materials (as opposed to the policy for selection of library materials, although in some cases a single policy covers both) and select resources following those polices and related procedures, and professional standards.  See the question about classroom libraries for more on this.

Let your administrator know that you understand concerns can arise, but that is the simple reality for every library and classroom. We are all faced with evaluating materials that might make one or another of us ask questions—-for any number of reasons. But teachers and librarians learn to look beyond their personal reactions to a book or topic, and their fears about what they think someone MIGHT do, in order to carry out their work as professionals. A policy that provides guidelines rather than parameters gives them the flexibility and support they need to exercise their professional judgment in the best interests of the children and teens in their schools.

October, 2006; updated 2020